Out of sight, out of mind
Recent surveys have shown children’s independent mobility has declined and that opportunities to play are much more restricted than they were in previous generations. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. For most children there is a higher level of adult surveillance than we would have been used to when we were younger but many children still play out unaccompanied by adults. It’s just that we have stopped noticing, in part because we believe the evidence of the same statistics.
‘We have given up haunting the places where children play, we no longer have eyes for their games, and not noticing them suppose they have vanished’. Children’s Games in Street and Playground – Iona and Peter Opie.
When One False Move was originally published in 1990 it showed that in 1971, 80 per cent of children were allowed to travel to school without adult supervision but by 1990, this had fallen to only 9 per cent. This survey was based on questionnaires of children and parents in schools rather than a direct observation of children, particularly their travel patterns when they played out within their own neighbourhoods. It certainly wasn’t our experience of Leeds at the time.
These grainy images are from a photographic project undertaken by Philip Sheridan and myself when we were playwork students at Leeds Metropolitan University in 1991. We were asked to look at Rosebank Gardens, a small estate based in Radburn design principles which separated road traffic from pedestrians to see if this made any difference to children’s play. As playworkers, we were interested in investigating the specific interactions of children with their physical surroundings. We were influenced by the photographs of Ann Golzen in Colin Ward’s The Child in the City and by the field trips of Robin Moore in Childhood’s Domain. We found a much richer picture of children’s play lives, than presented by One False Move.
We didn’t see any children on our first visit early one Saturday morning but the evidence from archaeology of play: the worn paint on railings, broken branches on trees and discarded bread baskets in bushes told a different story. Later in the day, the area still appeared quiet but the more you looked the more you saw. Children were everywhere, climbing on the railings, swinging on the branches, building dens in the bushes, riding bikes and playing football in small spaces away from adults.
Children did not just play out on the footpaths and low walls of the estate but also used the nearby terraced-street and the wild space – everywhere in fact where there weren’t cars – or at least where the traffic was slow enough to move the game to the side of the road and then re-appear when the cars had past.
Children used anything and everything in their play. Children used found objects to built ramps for their bikes, bread baskets became wickets, incidental features such as the stone-work and railings became used as a climbing frame, and the sides worn over time used as a slide.
20 years on I still see signs of children playing out, unnoticed by adults. Surveys and questionnaires provide only a partial picture of children’s independent mobility. We need more direct observation and engagement with children and families in their own neighbourhoods, not just in schools, if we are to create policies to support children playing out and to measure their success.
Steven Chown is the Programme Manager at Play England.